What is the worst thing that could go wrong with our society? [1]

[ Tue. Jan. 3. 2006 ]

Academics see gene cloning perils, untamed global warming and personality-changing drugs as presenting the gravest dangers for the future of civilization

Mankind's increasing understanding of the way genes influence behavior and the issue's potential to cause ethical and moral dilemmas is one of the biggest dangers facing society, according to leading scientists. The concerns were voiced as part of an exercise by the Web site magazine Edge, which asked more than 100 scientists and philosophers: "What is your dangerous idea?"

The responses were published online recently.

Craig Venter, founder of the J Craig Venter Science Foundation, said the genetic basis of personality and behavior would cause conflicts in society. He said it was inevitable that strong genetic components would be discovered at the root of many more human characteristics such as personality type, language capability, intelligence, quality of memory and athletic ability.

"The danger rests with what we already know: that we are not all created equal," he said.

It is an idea echoed by Steven Pinker, a psychologist at Harvard University.

"The human genomic revolution has spawned an enormous amount of commentary about the possible perils of cloning and human genetic enhancement. I suspect that these are red herrings. When people realize that cloning is just forgoing a genetically mixed child for a twin of one parent, and is not the resurrection of the soul or a source of replacement organs, no one will want to do it," he said.

"Likewise, when they realize that most genes have costs as well as benefits [they may raise a child's IQ but also predispose him to genetic disease], `designer babies' will lose whatever appeal they have," he added.

Richard Dawkins, of Oxford University, said our increased understanding of how our brains work would lead to difficult questions in defining morality.

"As scientists, we believe that human brains, though they may not work in the same way as man-made computers, are as surely governed by the laws of physics," Dawkins said.

"When a computer malfunctions, we do not punish it. We track down the problem and fix it, usually by replacing a damaged component, either in hardware or software. Isn't the murderer or the rapist just a machine with a defective component? Or a defective upbringing? Defective education? Defective genes?" he said.